In Translation

The difference between the right word and almost the right word, Mark Twain once told the world, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. By the look of things, Heather had just swallowed a horde of lightning bugs.

“En route??”

Heather shook her head as she looked away from her reading material, torn between hilarity and disgust. “There has got to be a better way of saying ‘on the move’ than that. I mean, it’s just … just wrong!

A little background may be in order here. Heather, like millions of people across the internet, decided to jump feet first into Duolingo. She wanted a fresh start that would keep her brain busy, so rather than resume her long-ago college pursuit of German ( from which she mostly retains “The window is dirty”), she instead went after French.

Funny thing. When you’re home a lot due to chronic illness, you wind up with a lot of time to spend on language lessons. A few months ago, she felt confident enough in her reading comprehension to try children’s books. So she found some old favorites in translation, the ones that she knew as well as her childhood phone number.

That’s a great way to navigate an unfamiliar road. But it also means that the potholes can be really jarring. And one such dip in the road came when The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe portentously declared that Aslan was “en route.”

“Really? REALLY?

In the original English, the phrase is “Aslan is on the move.” Heather loves the feel of that phrase – the sense of something coming, of life waking up, of expectation and possibility and change. You could even see it as the opening of a chess game, the unfolding of a strategy that is just now beginning to show itself.

By contrast, to hear that Aslan is “en route” sounds like a package is coming from Federal Express. Definite. Predictable. Decidedly non-mystical. “Yo, I’m on my way, see you in about 15!”

Maybe that sounds a little finicky. But words matter. Even when they technically mean the same thing, they carry a different weight. As the writer Terry Pratchett knew, there is a hilarious difference between calling your epic tale “Gone With The Wind” and “Blown Away.”

The dictionary wouldn’t care. But we know better. What we say isn’t necessarily what someone else hears.

That matters to all of us. Not just the translators.

It means peeling back assumptions and old habits, and fitting yourself into someone else’s experience.

It means hearing stories that might not be comfortable, going places you haven’t been, learning how life and the world works for someone who isn’t you.

It means examining your mental picture like an engineer scrutinizing a design, trying to see what’s been left out – or maybe, should never have been put in.

It’s not easy. And we’re not going to get it right all the time.

But making the effort means a wider, more caring, more interesting world. It means living with chords rather than monotones, a library instead of a worn-out book, a rich and varied playlist instead of a track perpetually caught on a single earworm.

It means we actually hear each other. And help each other. That we become harder to fool with fears and hatreds because we’ve caught a glimpse of the wonder that may wait behind.

That’s worth it. Every time.

Listen well. New worlds await, and not just Narnia or Hogwarts. Maybe they’re still far off, but have no fear.

They’ll soon be en route.

Right, honey?

 

Fantastic Tales

Beware the dragons. Watch out for the trolls. And always remember that heroes may be hazardous to your health.

Not your usual prescription, I grant you. But it’s apparently second nature to Graeme Whiting, an English headmaster who made international headlines when he declared that fantasy fiction would rot your child’s mind.

No, I’m not overstating it. Kind of hard to, really.

“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” Whiting wrote as part of a lengthy blog post on his school’s website, “yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

You might be surprised to learn that he and I agree on exactly one thing: Parents should pay attention to what their children read. Books do indeed open doors onto many places, and every parent should know where their child is spending their time, whether it’s in the park or in the Shire.

But fantasy can open some wonderful doors indeed.

I’m not writing to disparage the more classic works that Mr. Whiting himself loves and encourages for a growing mind, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, which were also part of my reading. Enough so that I’m a bit amused. After all, Dickens was long considered popular trash by lovers of “proper literature” and as for Master Shakespeare – well, whose life couldn’t use a dose of teen marriage and suicide (Romeo and Juliet), eye-gouging (King Lear), witchcraft (Macbeth), and rape and mutilation (Titus Andronicus), with just a sprinkling of cross-dressing and humiliation of authority (Twelfth Night)?

Sure, they’re wonderful – dare I say magical? – stories. But safe? C.S. Lewis once warned visitors to Narnia that the great Aslan was “not a tame lion” and if a story has any power to it at all, it can never be considered a “safe story.” When books meet brains, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Stories have a power that the great authors of fantasy knew quite well.

“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?” the hobbit Bilbo Baggins declares in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien has been my own Gandalf since about third grade, leading my imagination into places both terrifying and wonderful – as have many of the fantasy authors who followed in his wake. My family and I have cheered on Harry Potter, wandered with Taran and Eilonwy, leaped through wrinkles in time, and stumbled through wardrobes into unexpected worlds.

You acquire many things on a quest like that. Beautiful language. Heartbreak and hope. A decidedly quirky strain of humor. And most of all, the realization that evils can not only be survived, they can be overcome.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in 1909. “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

No, stories aren’t safe. Few things worth having are. But they can be priceless.

So yes, have a hand in your child’s reading. Be careful. Be aware. But be open to wonder as well. And don’t fear the dragons.

After all, that is where the treasure is to be found.